In the first story in our new science fiction series, Tomorrow's Utopias and Dystopias, a team of researchers investigating deepfake videos during the Covid-19 pandemic rallies behind their new boss, only to discover something frightening about her that puts the entire operation – and the people involved – in danger.This content was published on August 21, 2021 - 11:00
This is the first in a series of science fiction stories we're bringing you that try to imagine how technologies being researched in Switzerland could shape our lives.
Struggling from sleep, Reggie fumbled for her phone. 7:52am.
Working from home wasn’t the dream, but working from bed meant she’d honed her routine to a quick eight minutes, shower optional.
A steaming pot of coffee at her elbow, Reggie logged on to numerous remote networking systems and cast her eye over Slack for today’s instructions. Annabel had sent a long list, ending with “don’t let me down!”.
Reggie rolled her eyes, but she did want to impress. Two months in and they’d barely Zoomed, but Annabel made for an excellent role model. Seven languages, an impressive intelligence and analysis CV, and running a transnational disinformation team at barely 30.
Tomorrow's Utopias and Dystopias: A new, visionary sci-fi series by SWI swissinfo.ch
Utopia or dystopia? Dream or reality? The contemporary technological revolution confronts us with fundamental questions about the future of humanity. Will new technologies be our ally or enemy? How will they change our role in society? Are we destined to evolve into a species of superhumans or to be outclassed by the power of machines?
"Tomorrow's Utopias and Dystopias" is an original series of science fiction short stories created by SWI swissinfo.ch to try to answer these questions in an innovative and visionary way. Thanks to the creativity of a group of fiction writers and the collaboration of researchers and professionals working in Switzerland in the fields discussed in the stories, we will try to imagine and understand how technology might shape our lives. Each science fiction story will be accompanied by a factual article in collaboration with leading Swiss scientists to give an understanding of what’s happening in some of the most cutting-edge research fields and spark your imagination!End of insertion
First on the list was an alleged Orban speech in circulation. It looked good, but when had the strongman ever issued an invitation to refugees? A few clicks seemed to point to a notorious Russian hacker collective, but the real job was never who but why. What could Russia gain from a more liberal Hungary or an angry Orban?
Turning from her workstation, Reggie pulled out her personal laptop and logged onto the darkweb. In a well-protected chatroom she typed:
Orban liberal/pro-immigration in deepfake vid. Who gains?
Her watch deemed it too early to expect replies, unless her East Asian friends had suddenly developed an interest in Hungary. Time to crack on with Annabel’s list – the battle against #fakenews was endless.
By lunch, Reggie had debunked half a dozen videos allegedly of second-tier politicians calling for further EU disintegration and had half forgotten her chatroom request. Her fellow freaks and geeks had not; the darkweb forum peelthis.onion was buzzing as hacker detectives weighed in.
The “Russian fingerprints” on Orban’s speech had been debunked, hackers more experienced than she showing off in a digital pissing contest. But there was no consensus on motive, and Reggie had a long list of viral videos to investigate.
Her Zoom with Annabel was as glitchy as ever, so they reverted to Slack after several abortive attempts. How a tech boss managed to survive in a flat with such godawful WiFi Reggie would never understand, views of Lake Zurich notwithstanding. But the boss seemed happy enough with Reggie’s work, going by her increased workload.
A notification popped up. Can you talk? It was Simon, her ostensible deskmate had they not been recruited mid-pandemic. On the phone, I mean.
Reggie’s phone buzzed before she could reply. “Simon. What’s up?”
“You still working on those detections Annabel sent?”
“Yup! Don’t think I’ll ever finish.”
“Any chance you could drop them for a second, run background on a video I’m sending?”
“Sure. What am I looking for?”
“That I don’t want to tell you. I want to know if you see what I see. Just run your usual detection algorithms and get back to me when you’re done, will you? And stick to Telegram for this please.”
* * *
Reggie sat back, mouth agape, and reached for her phone. “Simon. It’s Annabel, isn’t it? She’s...”
“Not real? That’s what it looks like to me.”
“The source code. It’s gibberish. What’s it hiding?”
“That’s what we need to figure out.”
“Us? We’re greenhorns!”
“Or too low-level for anyone to care about? This goes nowhere near the office.”
Reggie laughed. “What office? My bedroom?” Outside her window, storm clouds were gathering over the mountains to the southeast.
“This is serious, Reg. We don’t know what we’re dealing with.”
“So let’s go back to the start. What do we know about ‘Annabel’? The company? Let’s get our known-knowns figured out and work from there. We’re supposed to be analysts, let’s analyse.”
* * *
Reggie was pacing her balcony, trying desperately to avoid buying a pack of cigarettes from the shop downstairs. After three days of round-the-clock data processing and analysis, she and Simon had made little headway regarding Annabel. Clearly their boss didn’t exist, but they were no closer to finding out who had created her, nor why.
What they did know is that it was a long game – “Annabel” had over a decade-long online footprint. Which is why Reggie had decided to call in the big guns, whether Simon was on board or not.
When the doorbell rang, it didn’t pierce her reverie. But her brain registered a morse code pattern in the buzzing, S-O-S pulling her to the entry phone. The screen showed a man in sunglasses and a surgical mask, whose identifying characteristics had been lost to the pandemic.
“Ms Neubauer, I’m from Intelligence. Could I have a moment of your time?”
“It’s about your forum. Perhaps you would let me up?”
* * *
Reggie closed the door behind the departing spook and used all three locks for the first time since moving in. It didn’t make her feel any safer.
Mr Brunner – if that was his real name – had wittered on about Swiss neutrality for some time before making his point. Whether the Swiss were truly neutral or just annoyed at not being part of the Five Eyes gang, Reggie was still unsure. All she knew was she’d prodded a hornets’ nest.
“Your online activities,” he had said. “They have come to my attention following a potential overlap with one of my areas of interest. You analyse deepfakes, correct?”
“And your darkweb activities. These are not company-sanctioned?
“Don’t think me stupid. You’ve been asking questions, yes?” He peered at her with pale blue eyes. “I recommend you desist.”
She replayed their conversation, scanning the forum for clues in the tinfoil hat stuff she’d previously dismissed. Following whispers with the fervour of Q-Anoners, her crew was compiling research dossiers. Even Reggie’s own company was funded by shells within shells in offshore markets favoured by the Anglo-American intelligence agencies. She typed:
Do we know anything about deepfakes that Intelligence don’t want us to know?
Responses flew in, but only one caught her eye.
BrunBear: I see you are not in the habit of taking advice. I did say to desist...
From behind, a cacophony of splintering wood and shouts to freeze.
Kate Walker is a British freelance journalist who has covered motorsports for outlets such as The Financial Times, The New York Times and ESPN. She enjoys writing fiction as a hobby.
How realistic is the story you have just read? Two of Switzerland's leading deepfake experts explain why it’s becoming easier to fool the human eye and spread disinformation through fake videos: